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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
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Madison Food Explorers guide visitors to the best and the brightest
Gustatory tourism
Andrea Hughes takes visitors to now world-famous Ian's Pizza.
Andrea Hughes takes visitors to now world-famous Ian's Pizza.

Think of it as a moveable feast in Hemingway's metaphorical sense of the term. "The idea is that we're tasting history, culture and architecture," says Andrea Hughes. Food, too, of course.

The founder, owner and general manager of Madison Food Explorers is explaining the concept behind her gustatory three-hour "Lake to Lake" tours of central Madison. Launched last fall with silent creative partner Angie Sparks, the tours are premised on local foods. Downtown Madison's architecture, culture and history serve as substantial side dishes.

In combination, this repast makes for a sating 1.8-mile stroll.

Starting from Monona Terrace, the tour's guide may introduce Madison's municipal flag or recount Otis Redding's death here in a Lake Monona plane crash.

Proceeding around the Capitol Square and down State Street to the UW-Madison's Memorial Union, the narrative broadens to include insights into features and locations along the route, along with revelations about the foods encountered.

At Fromagination, for example, tour participants may hear about how the flavors of the cheeses they sample are affected by how the dairy's cows are fed.

A stop at Myles Teddywedgers to sample Cornish pasties provides an opportunity for guides to discuss the throng of Cornish miners who settled in Dane County circa the 1840s.

Another stop, at the Old Fashioned, introduces intrepid explorers to fare reflecting Wisconsin's enduring supper-club heritage. Participants encounter the state's German heritage in the form of Wisconsin's unofficial state sausage at State Street Brats. By the time the tour reaches the Memorial Union, it's dessert time: Babcock ice cream. Along the way, refreshing beverages of choice include beers from local breweries.

This is not a calorie-neutral experience.

"When you come to Madison, you have to see our downtown," insists Hughes, explaining her initial focus on the central isthmus. The geographic sliver and its flanking lakes lend the feel of a resort town, she observes, recommending visitors take the tour early during their stay here, so they can revisit their favorite stops during their remaining time in Madison. "I call it a great start to a great stay," she adds, employing the tour's tag line.

The Lake to Lake Tour departs at 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, rain or shine. Tickets are $42 each through Brown Paper Tickets online or at 800-838-3006. Advance purchase is required so the right amount of food is prepared at the venues.

Hughes reports the tours are going over well, with four out of five tours booked full one recent week. She's hired two new employees to serve as guides, helping her maintain the 12-person limit for each tour. "It's supposed to be intimate," Hughes explains. A self-selecting group meeting for the first time over their shared interest in local food and culture.

Demographics are "all over the board," she notes. They include "a good number of people from Madison," but also visitors from Chicago and from coast to coast, couples and singles, younger and older.

Hughes has taken food tours like this in other cities. At some point, it dawned on her: "I love Madison and would love to be able to show it off."

With an undergraduate degree in communications and a background in farming, restaurant and conference management, special-events planning and tourism, Hughes had the aptitude for such a venture. Consulting with Shane Kost, who runs food tours in Chicago, Hughes networked with local food venues and organized a soft launch for Madison Food Explorers last fall.

Her ambitions are to refine the Lake to Lake tour and build it to a point where bookings are at a consistent 80% of capacity. Once those goals are achieved, she aspires to introduce tours of restaurant-rich districts like Monroe Street and Atwood Avenue.

"I'm trying to get people to enjoy Madison," she explains. No better route than through their gusto for local food.

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